Have you ever watched a butterfly in flight and tried to figure out where it will go next? The butterfly will soar three feet in the air, veer left, drop, veer right. It will look as if it’s heading for a flower, then land on a rock.
Of course, it is biologically programmed to do that. It makes it hard for a predator to catch the butterfly when the predator can’t figure out where it is going.
However, some writers “flutter,” too, moving so fast from topic to topic that the reader can’t quite follow the tale. While judging writing contests, I’ve seen some pretty good stories where the author did a poor job of directing the reader’s attention.
For example, I may find a story where the author says, “It was windy outside. Lola sat down in a chair. At the bar, a customer staggered up from his stool. A rocket blasted off from the spaceport.”
Do you see the problem? Nothing has been created, and the reader’s attention is directed from place to place seemingly at random. What’s even worse, I know that usually such an author will continue to flit about, never describing anything in full.
So when I start a story, I immediately choose to focus. Let’s say that you are trying to create a setting. “It was windy outside” might be a fine way to start, but “outside of where?” We readers don’t know. We seem to be in a bar a moment later, but the author hasn’t created a bar. How many people are in it? What’s the décor? What does it smell like? What time of day is it? How do we know that it’s windy outside—by the sound of howling wind, by wind blasting through an opened door? There are a dozen questions that need to be answered here before we can go on.
Then “Lola sat down in a chair.” Who is Lola? What does she look, smell, and sound like? What’s her demeanor? How is she dressed? A dozen questions arise before I can really imagine her as a character.
What does the patron getting up from the bar have to do with anything? Is he important to the tale, or just window-dressing?
“A rocket blasted off from the spaceport.” Again, how does the point-of-view character know? Does he feel the ground shaking? Does he see a bright light through the window? Does the roof of the bar rumble as the rocket shoots overhead? We really don’t know because the author here has just narrated the tale, not really used the senses in order to “create” the setting.
So when you begin to describe something, realize that you need to go all in. You need to slow down and focus.
For example, if you’re going to describe a setting, perhaps you could start by letting us see what is in the “near ground”—what’s near at hand for your point of view character. For example, “Nila grasped her knife firmly and sliced some venison from the spit above the campfire, squinting against the bitter smoke.”
You might want to add more details about Nila or what is close at hand, but you could also move to the mid-ground. “The shadows were dark beneath the pines that crowded at the edge of the wood, and in the distance a chorus of wolves began to howl.”
Now, you could spend more time on the woods, describing its scent or the temperature, or you might go into the deep background: “Overhead, a silver crescent moon shimmered among blowing clouds.”
That is the way that I do it, typically. I try to give a setting in a few broad strokes, knowing that I need to fill in details in a page or two, but I get the basics down.
Only when you’ve created a bit of a setting might you start now describing Nila—her clothing, voice, physical description, history, hopes, fears, and so on. But with her, too, I might create her in bits and pieces, giving a general sense at first, then adding details as the story grows.
The important point here is that as an author, you need to think of yourself as something of a movie director. You need to figure out where you are going to point the camera, bring in the sound, and have your characters act. Do it in stages. In other words, you direct the reader’s attention.
Don’t throw your images and sounds together haphazardly and then expect the reader to try to figure out what it all means. The reader won’t do it. As an author, you want to make the reader’s job as easy as possible, so that he never has to stop and try to figure out what is going on.